Speaking before one of his smallest crowds this campaign season, Donald Trump declared Friday night at a rally in Salt Lake City that he loves the Mormons.
The feeling does not appear to be mutual.
Trump suffered one of his most decisive defeats of the year Tuesday in the Mormon mecca of Utah, where Republican caucusgoers voted overwhelmingly against him. Ted Cruz received 69% of the vote in the state, followed by John Kasich at just under 17%, and Trump in last place, at 14%.
The drubbing shouldn’t come as a surprise. So far in 2016, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have proven to be one of the most stubbornly anti-Trump constituencies in the Republican Party.
National polling data focused on Mormon voters is hard to come by, but the election results speak for themselves. Even as Trump has steamrollered his way through the GOP primaries, he has repeatedly been trounced in places with large LDS populations.
In Wyoming, the third-most-heavily Mormon state in the country, Trump was able to muster just 70 votes in the low-turnout Republican caucuses there — losing to Ted Cruz by a whopping 59 points.
In Idaho, the country’s second most Mormon state, Trump lost the primary by 18 points.
The pattern holds at the county level as well. As New York Times data journalist Nate Cohn illustrated, the larger the proportion of Mormons in a given county, the worse Trump has generally performed in the primary contest there.
This dynamic was perhaps most vividly demonstrated earlier this month in the deeply conservative Madison County — home to Brigham Young University–Idaho and a population that’s estimated to be upward of 95% Mormon. Cruz won the county with 57% of the vote; Rubio came in second with 27%. Trump won a total of 539 votes — less than 8% of the county electorate, and just barely enough to squeak by fourth-place Kasich.
Some are pointing to Mitt Romney, who has spent recent weeks on a high-profile crusade to stop the billionaire, to explain this phenomenon. But LDS voters’ skepticism of the billionaire — which, polls suggest, predates Romney’s emergence as an anti-Trump champion — is rooted more deeply in Mormon culture and politics.
That’s because while Mormons make up the most reliably Republican religious group in the country, they differ from the party’s base in key ways that work against Trump.
On immigration, for example, the hard-line proposals that have rallied Trump’s fans — like building a massive wall along the country’s southern border to keep immigrants out — are considerably less likely to fire up conservative Latter-day Saints. The LDS church has spent years lobbying for “compassionate” immigration reform. In 2011, church leaders offered a full-throated endorsement of “the Utah Compact,” a state legislative initiative that discouraged deporting otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants and offered a path to residency for families that would be separated by deportation.
These pro-immigrant attitudes are common among rank-and-file believers, many of whom have served missions in Latin American countries. Mormons are more than twice as likely as evangelicals to say they support “more immigration” to the United States, according to Notre Dame political scientist David Campbell. And a 2012 Pew survey found Mormons were more likely to say immigrants “strengthen” the country than they were to call immigrants an overall “burden.” When Romney ran for president in 2012 on a restrictionist immigration platform, his views were widely noted in LDS circles for being at odds with his church.
Many Mormon voters are similarly wary of another Trump campaign hallmark: Muslim-bashing.
Last year, when the billionaire proposed banning all Muslims from entering the United States in the wake of the San Bernardino terrorist attack, Trump became the only candidate in either party this election cycle to elicit a response from LDS church leadership.
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is neutral in regard to party politics and election campaigns. However, it is not neutral in relation to religious freedom,” the statement read, before proceeding to quote the faith’s 19th-century founder, Joseph Smith, saying he would “die in defending the rights of … any other denomination who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves.” (In case the message wasn’t clear enough, the church-owned Deseret News went on to publish a story highlighting the growing alliance and solidarity between Mormon and Muslim leaders.)
During last year’s debate over the potential national security threat posed by Syrian refugees coming to the United State, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert was the only Republican governor in the country to say refugees were welcome in his state.
Trump is off-putting to Mormons for more predictable reasons as well. His blatant religious illiteracy, his penchant for onstage cursing, his habit of flinging crude insults at women, his less-than-virtuous personal life and widely chronicled marital failures — all of this is anathema to the wholesome, family-first lifestyle that Mormonism promotes. And demographically speaking, Mormons tend to reside outside Trump’s base of support anyway. They have higher-than-average education levels, whereas Trump does best among voters without any college education; they are more likely to be weekly churchgoers, while Trump performs better with Christians who attend services infrequently.
LDS voters are not a political monolith — just ask BYU’s Bernie Sanders fan club — and Trump will no doubt be cheered on by a noisy minority of supporters in the Beehive State Tuesday. But it’s difficult to imagine a Republican presidential nominee more naturally repellent to Mormons than The Donald.
In fact, a poll released Saturday by Y2 Analytics asked likely Republican caucusgoers in Utah how they would vote in the general election if Trump won the GOP nomination. Only 29% of these die-hard Republicans said they would pull the lever for Trump; 25% said they would write in another candidate, 15% said they would vote third-party, 8% said they would not cast a vote for president at all, and 7% said they would vote for the Democratic candidate. According to a new Deseret News/KSL poll, Trump would lose to both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in Utah.
If anti-Trump Republicans are serious about backing a third-party ticket in the general election, they would do well to schedule some campaign stops in Provo.
This article has been updated to include the results of Tuesday’s Republican presidential caucuses in Utah.
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